Tax Policy Head On

It’s been remarked more than once recently that we seem to be repeating some of the same arguments over and over. I’m going to try to segment out some of those to highlight them in their own threads, so we can have the definitive discussion and then hopefully move on and not need to repeat these on other posts.

So let’s talk about taxes and tolls. A common argument we seem to have is that gas taxes are user fees, and using them to fund bicycle or pedestrian facilities on roads is inappropriate (using the state gas tax, which is constitutionally restricted to roads). And then there is the ‘siphoning off’ of the federal gas tax for transit uses.

A similar argument says that if a bridge is tolled for cars and trucks, it should be tolled for bikes and pedestrians too.

I have a different view, which is that taxes are NOT user fees, they are both part of citizenship, contributing to the greater good of the community, and a policy tool, useful for discouraging things that have negative consequences, possibly also helping subsidize things that provide benefits to the community.

Since I believe that excessive reliance on cars is detrimental to our society (note that I’m not saying cars are bad in general), I have no problem if gas taxes and tolls are sometimes used to fund bike lanes, sidewalks or transit.

Excessive reliance on autos creates large roads that divide communities and detract from our landscape, pollutes our air (and water to some degree with runoff) and contributes to negative public health outcomes (asthma and obesity as examples).

Cycling and walking contribute to positive health outcomes and are very efficient uses of the public right-of-way from the point of view of use of space and energy. Transit is also a more efficient use of space (especially when you factor in the parking requirements for cars at both end of a trip). The energy benefits vary depending on the type of transit. It’s also worth keeping in mind that almost every transit trip includes a walking component as well.

To me there is a very clear analogy to schools. I’ve never had kids in the Portland Public Schools (because of custody arrangements, my step-kids have gone to school in other districts or in private schools), but I faithfully pay my property taxes to support schools in my district (and through equalization, the whole state) and vote YES on school levies, even though I don’t have a direct benefit. I believe that public education is vital to a civil society and I cheerfully pay up. If I just looked at it as a user fee, I’d have my hand out for a refund.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, gas taxes and tolls are policy tools, not just user fees. Bring it on!

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